Sermon for Sunday, May 17, 2009
Dr. Dan Doriani
When I was a seminary professor, I was often a guest preacher. Occasionally, I arrived at a church on a communion Sunday. People were surprised that I was surprised and that I had a question: "Tell me how you do it." Reply: “We do it the way everyone does it." I would say, "Tell me how everyone does it."
Do you quote the words of Jesus from Matthew, Luke or 1 Corinthians?
Do you take the elements together or one by one? So you take them as they arrive or hold to the end?
Does the service go longer or do I need to shorten my sermon?
Do you pray before, after or both? At least three other questions.
These are small things. In fact, as I read through the history of worship I notice that the one constant for the form of worship is that - nothing is constant. The forms are constantly changing.
How long is the service? Some say thirty minutes. Some say four hours. Do people gather in humble or grand places? It's our custom for the pastor to stand while the people sit. Long ago, the pastor sat and everyone else stood. Today, sometimes everyone sits – the people in theatre chairs, the pastor is cool on his stool. So much is uncertain. What is certain?
1. Foundations for Worship
God calls us to worship him. 1
The Lord commands and encourages us to worship and praise him time and again in the Bible: "Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name. Bring an offering and come before him; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness" (1 Chronicles 16:29).
Psalm 100: "Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs." Jesus said, "Worship the Lord your God and serve him only" (Matthew 4:10). Why? He is the creator God, he is the one God who enters his world, submits to powers, and suffers all their wrath, all to restore his people. He makes promises and covenants with us; he is faithful when we are unfaithful. He is always righteous, always good. To worship is to "ascribe the Lord the glory due his name." Worship engages the whole person – mind, will, emotions. The Lord invites us to engage our body by lifting hands and bowing on knees before him.
Psalm 95:1-3, 6,7: "Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation. Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song. For the Lord is the great King above all gods. (v.6) Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; (v.7) for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care." That means we thank the Lord – not luck or fate – when good comes to us. We receive good things because we are under his care.
Psalms, the longest book of the Bible is devoted to the praise of God. It's an exclamation. Praise the Lord! It's a command. Praise the Lord! Even psalms of anguish and lament end with a burst of praise.
The purpose of worship is to praise one who ought to be praised
You probably heard the story and the voice of Susan Boyle, age 47, contestant on “Britain's Got Talent,” a show like “American Idol”. A complete unknown, she looked frumpy and awkward. People mocked her before she started. Then she began to sing and her clear, strong voice filled the theatre. People rose to applaud as she sang. One of the judges joined them before she was half done. Why? They had praise for what they heard. It was too good to ignore.
We worship the Lord because he is too good, did too much, is too great to ignore. When we see the Lord as he is, there should be an impulse to repent, to ask, "Why would I, why did I, worship anyone or anything else? He is the One who deserves honor and praise." Worship is simply the right thing to do.
Worship may be something we do best when we are not aware of ourselves. It's best when we read or listen or sing about the Lord and something comes over us. Worship is like friendship: It just happens. To say, "I'm going to be your best friend" is one way to ruin a relationship. If we say, "I'm going to pursue excellent worship" we may end up watching ourselves "Is my worship excellent." 2
There is a weak, rapidly aging song: "Let's just forget about ourselves and magnify the Lord and worship him." How can you forget about yourself when you are singing to yourself about forgetting yourself? Stop talking about it and do it. Do what?
The elements of public worship. 3
It's clear from Scripture that certain things belong in worship. For each one, I could cite a series of passages from the Bible. First, someone leads corporate prayer (Acts 2:42, 4:24-30, 1 Timothy 2:1). The prayers praise God the creator and redeemer. Current events and needs are presented to the Lord. The people ask for boldness and power; they also say, "Thy will be done."
There are songs that both praise God and encourage other believers. "Sing a new song to the Lord, for he has done marvelous things" (Psalm 98:1, Ephesians 5:19-20).
The people give to the needs of the ministry. In the Old Testament, gifts supported the work of the priests. In the New Testament, gifts are collected for the poor, especially to those who are part of the church family. The deacons distribute them. (Acts 6:1-6, 2 Corinthians 8-9).
We confess the faith publicly. We confess God's name, recount his work (1 Corinthians 15:1-3, Hebrews 13:15, 1 Timothy 6:12): "You made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses." They also confess their sin (Ezra 10, 2 Kings 22).
The people greet one another. Five separate times, the apostles say. "Greet one another with a holy kiss." Not on the lips, not male to female but genuine and warm. (Romans 16:16, 1 Peter 5:14). It echoes God's greeting to us.
God's blessing is spoken. The blessing I speak each week at the end of the service is taken straight from one of Paul's letters. Jesus and Moses spoke similar blessings to God's people (2 Corinthians 13:14, Numbers 6:22-27, Luke 24:50).
Sacraments - There is no command to observe the sacraments every week, but the Bible mentions them as a part of public gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:24, 1 Peter 3:21).
A leader reads the Bible and explains, applies it. Jesus expounded Isaiah in a synagogue in his first public message. The Sermon on the Mount explains the true meaning of Old Testament commands. God commanded Timothy, lead pastor in Ephesus, "Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13).
This leads to something we may consider changing: our pulpit. Pulpits are optional. In the beginning, there were no pulpits. Jesus and the apostles spoke to small groups in houses. They itinerated, giving the same message many times without notes. Or they read from a scroll of the Bible and commented.
Early in church history, due to persecution, churches met in houses, so there were no pulpits. As persecution stopped and churches grew, pulpits became necessary. They were elevated so all could see the pastor, leader, speaker. And they were surrounded by hard wood or stone, to amplify the speaker's voice. When Jesus and Paul spoke to crowds, they did so in synagogues and temples made of stone or on stony, bowl-shaped hillsides where sound carried (Matthew 5, Acts 19).
In Catholic tradition, a large table of wood or stone is the central and largest furnishing in the worship space. Why? The Lord's table occupies "the inmost shrine" to remind us of "the chief act of public worship: communion with the Lord, the channel of grace in times of need." 4
Protestant churches almost always locate the pulpit in the center to show that the word is central (our church is a rare exception) When churches have two pulpits, one is lower and is used for Old Testament readings, some prayers and announcements – not for gospel readings or sermons. As if to say, "What happens here is less important". The center pulpit says, "The word, the gospel, is central, not the sacrament. Every word spoken should be important." If not, don't say it. For these reasons, I think we should consider a center pulpit.
2. Conceptions and Misconceptions about Worship
We have lots of partial misconceptions about worship. They mislead because they are partly true. The greatest mistake is to think worship is a Sunday only activity. Yes, Sunday worship, with God's gathered people, is a focal point. Even Jesus devoted himself to weekly worship with God's people. But there is also private worship. And worship, public and private, should have fruit that spreads like sweet perfume wherever we go: "Offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual act of worship" (Romans 12:1).
We think that we come to worship to receive. We say, "I got a lot" or "I didn't get a lot" out of that. It's true that we should receive something from God's word. But we should also give. We should hear from the Lord but also speak to God – confessing faith, confessing sin, praising, praying.
We also tend to assume that the way we worship – our tradition - is the right way, the best way. We've noticed this with things like pulpits, patterns of communion and standing or sitting. But the elephants in the room are music and clothes. When I survey the Bible, I see very few commands in these areas. That implies that we have freedom.
Music: We have a wonderful choir. Today some churches do have a choir, some have no choir at all. In the Old Testament, choirs led and musicians played various instruments. In the New Testament, we don't hear about choirs; the focus is on the church singing together.
There are about thirty names for musical instruments in the Bible identifying about fifteen to twenty different instruments: harps, lyres, percussion, trumpets, forerunners of the clarinet and oboe. Most were played for worship. Some - for example, sistrums and salishim – are long lost. No one knows what they are. They were once a beloved instrument. Now they are long gone.
The forms of worship changed within Bible times. Church history shows lots of change, too. In some ages, everyone sang and there was no choir. In others, the choir sang and everyone listened. Some Protestants purged the church of all images and all musical instruments. In some lands, Christians think drums/percussion are evil. In other lands, percussion is mandatory. Variety is OK. God never specifies which instruments to use. 5
These thoughts will unnerve someone. If someone doesn't want change and you hear, "Change is an option," that can be frightening. But we shouldn't be upset about the truth. The Bible shows that God is pleased when we praise him with song and we can do that with many instruments. Surely that is good news.
Here's another that makes us tense: The Bible never tells us how to dress. Now God did tell priests how to dress in the Old Testament, but Hebrews says Jesus is the great, final, ultimate high priest. Today we are all priests, Peter says, so there is no word on distinctive dress.
Some think the pastor or priest must dress differently, be set apart as a holy man, by unique robes and vestments. Others say the pastor is one of the people – sinful and redeemed like everyone else. Therefore we shouldn't set the pastor apart with special dress. The Bible says we should respect our spiritual leaders, but we should not exalt them. Jesus said, "Let no one call you father." This, ultimately, is why I don't wear a robe. I think pastors should dress more or less like the people.
Sometimes my studies scare me a little. If the pastor should dress like the people and most men have stopped wearing suits and ties… I didn't own a tie till I was twenty or a suit till twenty one. But I first began to preach in country churches at age twenty to twenty one. A pastor I respected and feared told me to put on a tie and never take it off in the church. I hated ties. But - respect your elders! I wore ties as if God had spoken.
Did he? I see one command in the Bible about clothing and worship. Our faithful elder and usher Bob Fulstone reminds me of it every year: James says we should welcome everyone no matter how they are dressed, fine clothes and jewelry, or poor and shabby. Some designers sell clothes that have been tattered just so. But some tatters are real. I have seen many of you give a warm greeting to the poor. The Lord is pleased!
The Bible says very little about the form of worship - clothes, music, times, songs. I wonder why. When we talk about worship – especially change in worship we focus on changes of form.
But the most important change is internal. If we don't worship the Lord, Dostoevsky said, we will "strive incessantly to find someone to worship" – some politician, someone talented or beautiful or powerful. We seek a vision of glory. And we imitate what we worship and glorify. If we worship a creature, then we'll become like that creature. If we worship God, then we'll be more like him.
3. Freedom in Worship
Freedom of form. In prayer this morning, I had an image of God chuckling at our tension over secondary matters – the form – of worship. We must know what counts!
When I first came to Central early in 2003, a woman fixed her gaze on me and spoke with great intensity. I didn't know her and can't recall who she was. She heard that I hoped to change worship somewhat and gave me her advice – or her command: "Dan, you can do anything you want as long as you don't touch "Good morning, Christ is risen." Never change that. Well, maybe never change the Lord's Prayer either. Otherwise you can change anything you want.”
Her intensity scared me a bit and she said she was speaking for the whole church... Of course, my calling as shepherd and overseer is not to listen to the loudest human voices, but, as best I can, to hear God's voice.
As I read the Bible, I see that the Lord gives us freedom. He tells us we can and should be creative. The Bible commands (or blesses) new songs nine times.
"Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth" (Psalm 96:1).
"Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things" (Psalm 98:1).
"I will sing a new song to you, O God; on the ten-stringed lyre I will make music to you" (Psalm 144:9) “He put a new song in my mouth (Psalm 40:3).
"Sing to the Lord a new song… in the assembly of the saints" (Psalm 149:1) In Revelation 5:9 and 14:3 the redeemed sing new songs in a new creation.
Astronomers estimate that there are 2 x 10 to the 23rd power stars in the universe. If we told every person who ever lived to name them for sixty hours a week, for sixty years and gave each person twelve seconds to name each star, everyone would still need a thousand lifetimes to name all the stars. God created all that. Today he sustains and directs it to accomplish his will – including the voice of Susan Boyle, the ears to hear it, the composers and musicians, the very idea of sound. Surely that merits our worship – a standing ovation.
But we refused and chose to go our way. We told the Creator of atoms and stars, chromosomes and planets, plants and animals, the laws of physics and ethics to get lost, leave us alone.
His reply: If you wish – but let me make an offer. I will enter your world in ordinary form and live a normal life, but experience its major hardships – poverty, hunger, thirst, betrayal, injustice, even torture. Why? As an eternal substitute for the punishment we deserved for our rebellion.
Jesus, you took it all on yourself. And then, after dying, you rose and made an offer: Trust me and all you time-bound, death-bound creatures will live forever, free, strong and good. Surely we must clap and weep for joy and bow in worship.
Here's another: we are free to be repetitive. We all say we hate repetitive songs. But we mean we hate bad songs and inane repetition. At one point: Handel's Hallelujah chorus repeats "Hallelujah" eleven times in a row. Then, "For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth" four times, then Hallelujah nine more times. The source for this is Revelation 19, which calls out Hallelujah four times in 19:1-6. There is lots of repetition in the Bible. "His love endures forever" appears four times in Psalm 118, twenty-six times in Psalm 136. So we shouldn't object to repetition; the Lord started it. We follow it. The classic hymn, Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us repeats "Blessed Jesus" sixteen times.
So let's be more precise and honest: We object to repetition in songs we dislike. If we like a song, repetition is fine. Perhaps we should re-label our tastes and attitudes. We all have tastes in music. We all like some songs that from a technical perspective aren't very good. And we probably dislike songs that represent excellent music. What we like is mysterious, subjective. We like songs from our youth. A line of notes, a lyric, a voice, that resonates. But let’s not make our tastes into God’s law. Let's not make our customs into God's law. We accept this when we are overseas. Let's accept it at home, too.
That doesn't mean anything goes. Our music should express biblical truths in ways that promote worship. A colleague named Carl attended an ecumenical gathering that included a worship service that was crafted to offend no one – Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic. There was a reading from Isaiah 58, rewritten to be politically correct. Next, instead of a prayer, everyone sat and listened to a tape recording of waves crashing on a beach. Next, a poem. Then a five minute homily on the evils of slavery. Then at the end of the service, not with a benediction or even a prayer, but another moment to meditate while Kenny G played Amazing Grace. "The best I can say is it was better than Barry Manilow singing Copa Cabana.
You know we are considering some moderate changes to worship at one service, 11:15. I tell you this story to assure you: Nothing radical, no waves, no Kenny G. Let me walk you through the change the pastors are considering. Let me acknowledge that every change brings some loss.
We will lose the convenience of three identical services. We will lose this thought: No matter when I go to church, the form will be essentially the same – a moderately formal but not ultra formal service.
In the future, the services will be moderately different. The 9:45 service may be a bit more liturgical or formal with, perhaps, more confession of faith and confession of sin. This is the result of our study of biblical worship. And instead of hearing our "contemporary" worship band five times a year, you may not hear it at all. I’m not saying you will never hear a guitar again, but probably less.
If you come to the 11:15 service, you may not hear the organ as the backbone of all congregational singing. You will still hear the organ, but not on every piece, It may accompany more than lead. The musicians will be more varied, more eclectic, perhaps more acoustic – piano, guitar, violin, clarinet. The hymn arrangements may be updated. The order of worship may be simpler. You may not hear "Good morning Christ is risen" every week. You may notice a little more silence, a moment of silence after the sermon, silence after a prayer.
The changes will not be radical. The principles of music will not change: The congregation will still be the main choir, as Phil says. We will aim for excellence in music. Hymns will be God-centered and rich in content. We won't sing "Jesus is my best friend" nine times in a row. We will sing new songs and classic hymns. The classics may be the same as always, or may have a new or modified tune. Still, even the new hymns will be substantial and fit our character and culture.
Everything we do will be something we've done before. Still, if we put a number of small changes together, it adds up to moderate change.
Some people love change - maybe 15% of the population. And about 15% hate change, find it troubling. Most people are in the middle, reluctant to change, but willing if there is a reason.
There is a reason. It grows from our mission, the goal of building our community and making disciples. To be plain, I have become convinced that having three identical, fairly formal, fairly busy services gets in the way of our mission. I say this before God, as your pastor, shepherd, overseer as I thinks about and pray over this church almost all day, six and one half days a week
I say this because I have heard, many, many times by now that our formal worship is an impediment to many people. At a restaurant, a server from another table walked over. "Hey, Dr. Doriani. You haven't seen me at Central for a while. We love you, but my wife and I just felt we needed more informal worship."
Many parents have told me the same about a child who is fifteen, seventeen, twenty or twenty-four. “Our style doesn't connect with my child. He just doesn't like it. He or she is looking for a different style.”
Conversations at the door with people who said, "I think I'd need to buy some new clothes if I want to come here. This place is a little upscale for me." It would be one thing if people who left us always find another church home. But they don't.
Another class of conversations: “I am here at Central despite the style, not because of it.” The people who say this are often here sporadically, not regularly. Most of these conversations are with the next generation, adults eighteen to thirty.
It is painful to say these things. I take no pleasure in it. In fact, I need to confess a sin. I should have said this earlier, but I have too much interest in being liked and too much fear of controversy. So I have shied away, even though I saw it earlier. I need to ask you – and the Lord to forgive me. And if you know that what I'm saying is true, and you let it make you angry, you need to repent, too.
But after repentance, there is forgiveness and renewal. As I see it, we have a fairly easy way forward, in two phases. In the short to middle term, we change one of our three morning services – not just the music. Relax it, slow it down, gave more silence. Make the music and the message a little less formal.
Why? Because Paul said, "To the weak I become weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Corinthians 9:22). That is, it's imperative that the church be flexible and remove needless barriers.
My proposal is to lower needless barriers at one service and make moderate changes for an interim period. Why an interim? Because eventually we will resume our building project. Lord willing, we'll have a large multi-purpose space, a good place for an alternate style of worship. Then we could have two services here, one there, all with a bit more time and freedom. But for now, I believe we need to change.
Why? Because everyone should worship the Lord. We can, must, remove each obstacle we can, so we all behold the Lord and his gospel, the hope of sinners.
1 Carson, Worship by the Book, p 27; Futato, Transformed by Praise, pgs 3-25.
2 Carson, Worship by the Book, p. 30-31
3 Edmund Clownery, Presbyterian Worship
4 Thomas Jackson, 1868, Curiosities of the Pulpit, chapter 2
5 IBSE 3, pages 436-49, Foxvog and Kilmer